PAX 2009: Gaming for Kids, or, Are Friend Codes Necessary?

by Kevin on

One of my favorite aspects of PAX has been the random panel discussions that I’ve sat in on. Because this conference is all about “gaming culture,” these panels address a variety of topics, from making video games to gaming philanthropy. This morning, I attended a really interesting discussion about raising kids in a modern, video game world, and the interaction with children and games. I don’t have kids, myself, but I suppose in some wonderful, terrifying future I will, and thinking about how I am going to introduce my children to video games is something I have not thought about much. Jump = More.

The panel assembled were all parents of children of various ages, and all were involved in the gaming industry in some regard. The discussion started with an examination of how games can be made more “kid friendly,” something that tends to strike a sour chord in most video gamer’s hearts. Well, what was interesting was that making games better for children did not just involve gimping it – removing blood, profanity, and violence. Certainly, that’s part of it, but there were good points raised about “asymmetrical gaming,” a term that was coined to describe how to make a cooperative experience that is both challenging to a gamer, and yet simple for someone who is not used to things. Cooperative play, it turns out, is a great way to make video games more accessible for parents with children. This rings true with my experience: I remember fondly the way my dad and younger brother used to play the SNES game Goof Troop together. From all of the reading I have done, I suspect that the Lego Star Wars / Indiana Jones /Batman games have taken on this role in a lot of households. I think that two of the mothers on the panel both played World of Warcraft as a family, which on the surface sounds incredibly lame, but I have a feeling that if your parents are cool enough, would actually be a blast. (side note: this can spin out of hand, too, with one mother describing how she would give her children chores/quests wearing a hat with a yellow exclamation point. Nerd mom alert.) The discussion moved on to the types of games that children played, which made me feel a great sadness for current parents with gaming children. See, it turns out that kids don’t care much about the quality of games that they are playing. No, instead, popular games these days for the young set are more in line with what pokemon pioneered, games that reward small tasks or collecting, many of them online. Webkinz was mentioned quite a few times. Disney’s Club Penguin as well. Also, certain facebook games, like Farmville and Mafia Wars (as mature as that can be) were also brought into the conversation. This is definitely something to think about – what is the value in letting kids play these games? I don’t know much about something like Webkinz, but is it educational? Is there a way to create a social gaming network that would be of more value for the participants?

What I found really interesting about the panel was the fact that the Nintendo Wii, a console that most people deride as being the most kiddie, was hardly mentioned. Parents let their children play games on Xbox Live (under some rules and supervision, such as “no headset”). I think that for game savvy parents, this is definitely possible. On the Wii, the online experience has been marred by the obnoxious friend code system, which a lot of gamers think serves no purpose. I know that the Wii has been adopted into households in an insane fashion, and not all parents are going to closely monitor their children’s gaming, so maybe the friend code system serves a purpose there, but overall, just how necessary do you think it is? Do you think that Xbox Live is safe for kids, or only with adult supervision? I know that some members of the Nintendorks community are parents, and I really want to know how this works, since I am fascinated by the whole idea of how I am going to bring a young gamer into the world.

Also, I asked a question of the panel regarding classic games, since I am worried that I’m going to pull out my NES in the future and they’re going to fall asleep, but I was reassured that good game design never goes old – kids will sit and play older games if they’re fun, and, well, a lot of them are. But again, I want to know from anyone who has some experience. I think I’ll actually go ahead and start up a forum thread because I am so interested, so join me there!